Modern Poetry and the Pylon Poets
In 1936 W.B. Yeats was invited by the BBC to give its 18th National Lecture, on the subject of ‘Modern Poetry’. During the broadcast he confessed that he disliked T.S. Eliot’s verse, but had ‘to admit its satiric intensity’, and acknowledge its influence on a new generation. These younger writers, such as W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and Cecil Day Lewis, were sometimes known as the ‘Pylon Poets’ for the way the newly electrified landscape of Britain loomed in their verse. Yeats preferred other voices and styles, notably Eliot’s contemporary Edith Sitwell, whom he found ‘obscure, exasperating, delightful’.
Echos of War
Obscurity and delight came in many different combinations in the poetry of this decade. David Jones had fought in the First World War and lived to tell the tale in his dense modernist epic In Parenthesis (1937), at a time when he felt the war was ‘no longer intimately known’. But poets too young to have witnessed the war were still self-consciously engaged with the issues of their time – unemployment, the Spanish civil war, the rise of communism and fascism – and could write poetry that aspired to directness and popularity as well as profundity and complexity. It could be as bleak as William Empson’s ‘Missing Dates’ or as affectingly beautiful as Auden’s ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’. From working-class Wales came the poems of Idris Davies, read here by Dylan Thomas, whose own sonorous surrealism brought a lyric urgency to the airwaves. The wry, sly verse of Stevie Smith, meanwhile, marked the emergence of a very different kind of voice, whose sharp, socially observant humour about the emotional life of the English would only really become popular in the decades after the Second World War.
The Beginning of the World Service
In 1932, the BBC launched its Empire Service (later the Overseas and then the World Service), which gave its radio programming a global reach. The decade ended with Auden moving to New York, where as a gay man he felt he had more personal freedom than in England. He marked the end of an era with two of his most famous poems, both written in the USA: an elegy for W.B. Yeats and ‘September 1, 1939’, a poem about the outbreak of war in a newly connected world where ‘Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages’.
BBC 100 articles written by Sandy Balfour, David Nowell Smith and Jeremy Noel-Tod.